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How many chickens really contain campylobacter?

The Food Standards Agency has today published the first of its quarterly results for levels of campylobacter contamination in supermarket chickens – we now want to know the best and worst performing shops…

Although most people haven’t heard of campylobacter, its effects can be deadly and debilitating.

The FSA has found that 6 in 10 chickens are contaminated, causing around 280,000 cases of food poisoning a year and 100 deaths.

But unlike salmonella, campylobacter remains mysterious. Many cases are sporadic and the onset of illness can be several days after contaminated food was eaten. There’s also no sign of a vaccine.

Preventing campylobacter contamination

We know that most campylobacter comes from chicken and it is a priority for the FSA, which has been working with retailers and the poultry industry to try to improve controls and bring levels down.

There’s no simple answer, but a lot is now known about what can help reduce the levels of contamination. In particular, more concerted efforts have to be made by the retailers and suppliers to tighten controls and prevent contamination at every point in the rearing and processing chain.

The problem is that this comes at a cost and whilst many people are unaware of the issue, there’s not a huge incentive for food businesses to improve. The FSA used national Food Safety Week to tell people not to wash chicken as this spreads the bug about.

But while heightened consumer awareness is obviously essential, we have been relying on consumers to guard against food industry weaknesses for too long.

Chlorine washes for chickens in the US

In recent years, there has also been a lot of focus on end process treatments, such as chlorine washes that are permitted in the US but not in the EU, as a way of cleaning up chicken at the end of the production line. More acceptable treatments, such as rapid surface chilling, are becoming available but still risk taking the focus away from improving the rest of the production process.

The retailer survey is a welcome move by the FSA but so far it has not published the results by retailer. This is important to help drive up standards and enable consumers to make more informed choices.

The horsemeat incident highlighted the vulnerability of food supply chains. There are many risks and weaknesses that are difficult to anticipate. Campylobacter is a problem that we have known about for many years and it’s time for the FSA to show that it can still be tough and drive improvements across the industry.

A version of this post first appeared on The Grocer.

Comments
Geminii says:
11 August 2014

My husband and his sister got Campylobactor from eating “Pink” chicken livers in a restaurant in Shropshire. We live elsewhere. I recognised the symptoms as something serious and his doctor arranged for a stool sample to be tested and indeed it was, as I thought, Campylobactor.

However, my local Health Authority was not in the slightest bit interested because the episode occurred outside our County. The County where it did occur made it difficult to report. The Environmental Health Officer failed to send the appropriate documentation to report the outbreak, and it was only after repeated calls to that County that I got an EHO to visit the restaurant who were given a cursory instruction to ensure chicken livers are properly cooked.

It is down to the source of the food and the husbandry, as others have mentioned, to ensure that good hygiene is maintained. Some chicken farmers are extremely efficient at keeping this nasty bug out of their food chains, but others are more interested in their profit margins.

This bug can kill. If you get an episode of food poisoning, you should report it. It might save someone’s life.

With 59% of supermarket chicken affected by Campylobacter and the problem so well established, I would be surprised if there are big differences between them.

Three supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer – are currently looking into the problem: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10986913/Supermarkets-launch-inquiry-into-chicken-supplies-over-bacteria-fears.html

We have to be careful with newspaper undercover reports because they want to present a good story. However you wonder, given the Guardian’s reports of a number of failings, whether these really could be just isolated incidents. I assume there are a relatively small number of major meat processing plants so, in view of the serious implications of hygeine failings, is it too much to expect regular unnannounced visits from inspectors – either local authority, national, or from the major supermarkets? Maybe there should be licence fees that allow them to operate and cover the costs, so lack of inspection cannot be blames upon “the cuts”?
I have suggested before that there should be a “whistleblowers” scheme whereby employees and users can report such incidents in confidence to an independent body; when an accumulation of similar criticisms occur an investigation can be prompted. After all, the people who work or use places like this are best-placed to know what really goes on. Or are the FSA, like the CQC, afraid of tackling these issues? “Nipping in the bud” seems to be a strategy that eludes them – a report from the FSA next summer is hardly likely to prevent infections in the meantime.

The standard of reporting of scientific matters by the press is mediocre at best but they can help draw problems to attention of the general public.

As I understand it, the main reason that chickens are contaminated with Campylobacter is that some of them contain Campylobacter in their intestines and that faecal material can be transferred to all the carcasses during factory processing. A little more care and proper training of those that work in the factories might greatly decrease the risk to those who buy chicken. I wonder if the workers have to pass any form of assessment before being declared fit to work on the production line and if the companies conduct regular inspections.

Councils are now adopting food recycling.

It is summer, chicken can fester for up to a week in the heat then be turned into soil improvers.

Is the ground getting contaminated leading to further problems?

Waste food and gardening waste will be full of bacteria, including harmful ones. We use animal waste as a fertiliser and I believe that human waste is used in some countries. 🙁 Even soil contains harmful bacteria.

Our bodies have natural defences against harmful bugs, though we are more risk if they contaminate food or get into wounds. Washing our hands before handling food is good advice for adults and not just children.

uncle festa says:
29 October 2014

More to the point.
How many chickens are raised on GM food or food containing GM ingredients?

I do not wash chicken instead I soak it in lemon juice. Is this an effective way of treating
a chicken before cooking it?